10.01.2014, Know-How

How do Beacons function?

So much has been written about beacons so far. But how do they actually work and what is their potential?

By now everybody has already heard something about beacons, those small devices whose bluetooth beacon light is supposed to guide our digital companions, namely smartphones, through the physical world
Apple introduced its “iBeacons” in a rather unspectacular way with the update of iOS 7 in autumn 2013.


What are beacons exactly and how do they function?


Beacons are small transmitters based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a battery saving version of bluetooth. Each Smartphone (or tablet PC) with BLE is thus a potential beacon that can recognize other beacons in its surroundings and react to them. This mere possibility is a breeding ground for many ideas. Yet it becomes even more interesting when the BLE technology is packed in a box with the size of a matchbox. Then we get a tiny lighthouse that will be transmitting its beacon light via a coin cell battery for two years – the so called “Advertising”. Such an isolated beacon can be now bought for ca. 30 Swiss francs and can easily be hidden behind things or hung onto them. A Smartphone with a BLE can receive advertising signals up to a distance of ca. 30 meter and forward it to its applications. The actions to be triggered with the signals depend on the applications in the Smartphone. And this is the essential point: the beacons per se cannot directly track the smartphone user and collect corresponding data. The user must install explicitly an application for that and will have constant control over what services he wishes to use. Whereby it is not necessarily clear what information he is giving away about himself in that way; the application could for example very easily forward his position to a server. A Smartphone cannot be tracked down easily via beacons as with GPS, only its distance from the beacon *. For this purpose the Smartphone needs significantly less energy than with a GPS and the use is also easily possible within buildings.


What is the potential of beacons?


Apple has already equipped US Apple Stores with beacons. These serve to intercept customers in stores and to make them aware of Easy Pay or of product reviews, when the iPhone user stands close to the shelves with accessories. So it is always the matter of recognizing a relatively precise, local reference from the Smartphone to something else..

Also other companies have recognized the potential and experiment with the use of beacons, e.g. larger department store chains in the US or Paypal for contactless payments.

But the use of beacons is still in its infancy and we are sure that the future holds many more innovative areas of application.

* Via _Trilateration_ an absolute localization would be possible, but for this first the exact positions of the beacons would have to be known..

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